How to Maintain Strong Donor Relationships During the Pandemic

We welcome a special guest: Matt Hugg, an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses and spent much of his 30-year career as a fundraiser and also as a nonprofit board member. Today he shares his insight on donor engagement in today’s environment.

There’s no doubt about it. These are tough times for relationships. 

Regardless of how many seminars you attended on leveraging tax codes for your donors’ and your nonprofit’s good, the most successful planned giving officers don’t sit at their desks taking orders like workers at a fast-food counter, asking, “Want a charitable gift annuity with that?”  

At its core, planned giving has always been about developing relationships. You’re building trust with donors and their families and advisors, helping prospective donors solve problems, while at the same time securing the future of the nonprofit’s mission. You are stewarding someone’s legacy. 

To do that, you need to build connections, even in difficult times.

While each donor relationship is unique, this three-step process will guide you through identifying and coming to terms with problems, finding innovative solutions and staying on message.

Step 1: Identify the Obstacles

Today there seem to be so many obstacles to relationships. Should you even visit your donors? If you do, where do you meet? How far from each other do you sit or stand? Do you wear a mask, shake hands, or give someone a hug? 

Even getting there can be a problem. Travel protocols, unpredictable pricing, and service shortages make anything more than a car drive a real challenge. 

In a lot of jobs, these obstacles are inconveniences. In fundraising, they’re game-changers.

For example, let’s talk about your donor, Cynthia. 

It wasn’t that long ago that Cynthia was a regular stop on your twice-a-year circuit to her area. You would meet her at her apartment in her retirement community. You’d bring her up to date on your mission, review the latest numbers on the endowment created by her husband’s IRA, and talk about the program she hoped to create from her own planned gift. After that, she would treat you to lunch in their dining room. She loved introducing you to her friends and telling everyone that they should give to your nonprofit. 

Now, that’s all changed. 

To start, you don’t make those regular trips. The financial stress from the pandemic reduced your travel budget. You’ve been there once since then, and it was totally different. 

You still saw Cynthia in her apartment, but with a mask. While necessary, it was much harder for her to hear you, and she couldn’t read the expression on your face. The dining room was off limits to visitors, and at the end, she just waved—not the hug she used to give. 

But what concerned you the most was what Cynthia said. The isolation over the last year meant she’s watching more television and felt like she was losing perspective. 

What’s a fundraiser to do? While you might feel alone, struggles like these are now commonplace, and fortunately, there is a community of seasoned professionals to help offer solutions.

Step 2: Upgrade to Modern Solutions

It’s time to seek other ways to connect. 

When work colleague interaction was (and still may be) limited, the go-to solution is technology. That can be the same here, but it needs to be more nuanced.

To start your new plan for maintaining your relationship, make and keep a regular phone schedule with Cynthia. Make it much more frequently than your past visits—around once a month or every other month. Better yet, if she has a cell phone that’s video capable, use that. 

Ask Cynthia’s permission to use the resources she has at hand. Many retirement communities provide a modest level of tech support for connecting to wifi and other basic services. Ask them to guide Cynthia through the process of connecting via Facetime, Skype, Facebook or whatever service you decide. You might even be able to visit to help get her started on your first couple of calls. If Cynthia lives on her own, then a family member might help. You may find that she does this already to see her grandchildren or other members of her family.

The object is to let her see your face. Maybe you can have a virtual lunch with her? She could even invite her friends. 

Whether this is your solution for all your Cynthias or not, the point is that with some patience and creativity, technology can be a major tool in your relationship toolbox.

Step 3: Educate Donors

Tech solutions help, but are they ideal? No. Do they replace face-to-face interactions? Not at all. Yet they help maintain the relationship and will certainly be appreciated. 

As a fundraiser, your job is always about education. You educate donors on the importance of your mission. You educate your staff on the importance of fundraising. You educate your board on their role in networks and connections. 

Cynthia needs education, too.

It used to be that we could depend on our communications office and other resources to produce a steady stream of brochures, annual reports and event invitations to cover the majority of our donor’s education needs. Today much, if not all, of that has gone online for both donor convenience and budgetary reasons. The problem is that Cynthia may not be used to finding information like that online, and even if she is, she appreciates the tactile nature of paper.

Now may be the time to reevaluate how you deliver your organization’s news to your donors. Right now, if you focus on communication with donors, it’s probably by providing them with well-written online material that tells your mission’s story and the impact your organization is having because of generous donations. Expand your approach to delivering this information. Try creating a monthly newsletter mailer in addition to a monthly email newsletter. In this newsletter, you can repurpose information and graphics from your nonprofit’s social media posts, blog posts, and other materials.

Back to those phone or video calls. You may have wondered what you’ll talk to Cynthia about if you call her so much. Easy… use what’s in the material you’re sending from your monthly newsletter. 

Remember, as a fundraiser, you’re not in the journalism business where a news story is one-and-done. You’re more closely aligned with advertisers, who repeat their message so the buyer can remember it. It’s okay if Cynthia already saw what you’re saying in print, or if she reads it after you say it. The point is that, by using both methods, she remembers it. And if she remembers it, she can tell her friends. Plus, she now knows you’re accessible if she has questions. 

Of course, regularizing this system of calls and news will make this much easier for you to keep track of supporter relationships, and your donors may appreciate the predictability. The key point is to stick to your mission and the benefits it brings to both the people you serve and the world at large. 

How to Move Forward

Are these ideas going to solve all your relationship problems with donors? No. But through more than a little creativity, you can adapt to this new world of relationships using new technology (like video calls), old technology (like print marketing), and a lot of flexibility and consistency. Because as you know, these are tough times for relationships. 

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